Austria vs Airbus: October to seal a messy divorce?

Next week's poll could determine fate of Eurofighter fleet

Georg Mader
Posted: 10/10/2017

austria-eurofighter

Image: Flickr/Jean

A decision could be made in the coming weeks over whether Austria will prematurely scrap its Eurofighter programme, but aside to the difficulty in finding a suitable replacement, there remains serious doubt over the country’s willingness to immediately pursue a multi-billion euro procurement programme. 

Since mid-July, the Austrian MOD has been trying to officially abandon its Eurofighter programme early – from 2020 – without any decision on how to replace them. National auditors reported inconsistencies with the initial contract agreements and the revised contract in 2008, effectively stating that Austria was paying a higher price for a less-capable fleet, leading to allegations that Airbus lobbyists influenced the decision.   

SEE ALSO: World Fighter Aircraft Market Report

If the current administration survives the legislative elections on 15 October, it may – provided funds are made available within the new budget – try to procure the Gripen C/D MS20 or (less likely) several F-16Vs or -70s.   

At present, the intention is to purchase 18 new fighter aircraft to replace both the Eurofighter fleet and the 50-year-old Saab 105s.   

Aside to the lawsuit filed against Airbus for “willingly cheating” the MOD from 2002 to 2007 on deliverability and offset-costs (an accusation that Europe’s leading aerospace manufacturer calls “baseless”), the government has criticised  the Tranche 1’s operating costs and lack of much-needed capabilities.   

However, these capabilities were scrapped in 2007 by then-Defence Minister Norbert Darabos of the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPO) – the same party that is now pressing the case for an early end to the Eurofighter programme. The current fleet of 15 jets have only flown for ten years with Austrian roundels. 

‘It’s history!’ 

The replacement plan was revealed on July 7 in Vienna by Defence Minister Hanspeter Doskozil – also a Social Democrat – who said: “It was necessary to halt the overflowing costs of a Eurofighter which does not have the full capabilities needed for our sovereign air-surveillance.  Subsequently we today announce that the Eurofighter in Austrian service is history!” 

In reality, the plan to retire the Eurofighter after 2020 is almost entirely dependent on the result of the election and subsequent coalition negotiations.   

It is questionable if an incoming coalition government will be prepared to commit to such an expense within its first budget

Nevertheless, based on a study undertaken since February by Austrian ‘Air Chief’ Maj Gen Karl Gruber, Doskozil is claiming the decision will be based on cost-savings. 

“Buying and operating a new fleet of 15 single-seater and three twin-seater supersonic jets of an alternative type over the same period, could be up to 2 billion euros cheaper, up to 2049, than continuing with the 15 Tranche 1 Eurofighters that lack the robust capabilities we want for future air-policing,” he said. 

In late August, reports emerged that former Swiss executive Jakob Baumann, who was hired as a consultant to advise the Gruber study – at a cost of over $115,000 – had indirect business ties to SAAB. Baumann denied the MOD’s claim that this was not known to them and that his position on the board of unmanned aerospace company UMS Skeldar (of which SAAB own 47 per cent) could easily be identified on its webpage. Gruber explained that Mr. Baumann was not involved in any of the alternative fighter platforms. 

‘Critical‘ capabilities… 

Austria is now looking to close its fighter capability gap with a built-in infrared search and track sensor, helmet-mounted display, all-weather mid-range missiles (beyond-visual-range, such as Meteor or AMRAAM) and a modern self-defence suite similar to the Typhoon-based EuroDASS system.   

Since the revision of the original contract in 2007, Austrian Typhoons have even lacked radar warning receivers (RWRs), which have since been acquired from Denmark and added to the 2005 phased-out J-35OE/Mk.II Draken. This revision was made at a time when the Social Democrats took power and could not – as per its election promise – exit from the deal to buy 18 aircraft with Tranche-2/Block-8 capabilities.   

Despite this, a new agreement was formed with Airbus (then known as EADS) to reduce the number to 15 and to instead buy Tranche 1/Block-5s, with six supplied as second-hand Tranche 1/R2 jets from the German Luftwaffe. 

The aforementioned subsystems were discarded under the argument that they were “necessary only for war missions with NATO and not for peacetime air-policing over neutral airspace”. 

Gruber has since expressed his opinion that the European security climate – and subsequent election strategies – has changed dramatically since 2002, saying he would “not feel comfortable if I had to launch my pilots against a renegade Su-27 and its pursuers coming in from the east…” 

Real alternatives? 

While these capabilities can be restored to the Typhoon, Gruber cannot be sure what platform should (or could) ultimately receive them. The lifecycle figures presented suggest savings of up to €2bn until 2049 but this is a rough estimate based on talks with Swedish- and US-authorities, involving an entire new fighter acquisition. It is questionable if an incoming coalition government will be prepared to commit to such an expense within its first budget.   

If Austria looks to sell its Eurofighters to any third customer Airbus will almost certainly not entertain a support-contract

Saab officials confirmed to Defence IQ earlier in the year that if such a U-turn is undertaken, the new fighter would need to be 18 new-build Gripen C/Ds, as the E/F variant would offer no savings for Austria. Another option would be to lease used Swedish Air Force Gripens for several hundred million euros – but this would only offer a temporary solution while risking a more capable fleet acquisition in the future. The Gripen lost the original 2002 competition to an earlier version of Eurofighter under the assertion that it was too expensive.   

Some consideration has also been given to F-16 Block 70s, which Gruber previously told Defence IQ are “surprisingly affordable” but any Block-70 purchase can currently only be benchmarked against the Indian programme.   

Notably, September saw 22 new Lockheed Martin F-16Vs procured by Bahrain for around $2.8bn. 

Given the current animosity, if Austria looks to sell its Eurofighters to any third customer (beyond the consortium nations of the UK, Italy, Spain and Germany) Airbus will almost certainly not entertain a support-contract to accompany the deal. Selling the aircraft in parts would also be difficult given the US technology involved and their ITAR restrictions. 

Embedded trainer solutions

Until early 2017 the plan was to replace Austria’s Saab 105s with an advanced jet trainer, which would also download training activities from the fighter and retain a secondary armed air policing capability. This could be fulfilled by the likes of the M-346 (rumoured to be the preferred choice among Austrian 105 pilots), Hawk T2 or L-39NG. 

For now, a single-type trainer jet fleet is being pursued. However, the training syllabus is expected to shift all jet training abroad – similar to the efforts underway at the Italian airbase at Lecce – and a replacement programme is set to be initiated for the 1980s-era PC-7 MkI basic trainer from 2020. 

A possible replacement for the PC-7 could take the form of a light(er) jet trainer in the M-345HET or L-39NG class, but the PC-21 could also fulfil the requirements.

Editor’s note: On 18 September, Airbus filed a legal submission condemning the Austrian defence ministry’s claims against it as “politically motivated” and illegal.

Georg Mader
Posted: 10/10/2017